‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’ powerfully criticizes the media’s political influence

Noah Keate provides a critique of the BBC’s new documentary that explores the rise of the Murdoch dynasty.

By Noah Keate

Talk of media moguls can appear outdated. With online websites, everyone has the opportunity to contribute their thoughts and reporting on the world. Platforms like Twitter ensure that, in just 280 characters, all individuals regardless of background can have their say. 

However, some organisations and individuals clearly hold a greater influence over what receives attention. I write, of course, of Rupert Murdoch. The very definition of a media mogul, his news empire covering Fox, numerous Australian publications and, most notably in the UK, the Sun and Times papers, is marred in controversy. His level of influence on governments has repeatedly been questioned. Certainly, the very idea of a free press is jeopardized by his monopoly.

Such a titan of broadcasting would inevitably be explored by the media. That explains why BBC Two ran a three part series ‘The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty’. All great events take place in acts of three and this is no different. Through excellent narration by Kate Fleetwood, the audience are painted with a picture of how the Murdochs accelerated their influence. 

One has to understand Murdoch’s history. Rupert inherited barely anything from his father – only a small newspaper in Australia. Over the decades, we witness how he travelled around the UK, America and Asia to expand his media clout. It was clear, for example, that Murdoch purchasing the Sun was key in combating its bitter rival, the Daily Mirror. Recently, News UK’s influence extends over radio stations like Times Radio, Talk Radio and Talk Sport. 

The documentary contained a fantastic use of archive footage which portrayed the key figures of power. We witness Murdoch aboard a yacht, which specifically referenced then Labour leader Tony Blair trying to win over the support of the Sun before the 1997 general election. Labour are seen as dancing with the devil, given the attitude of Murdoch’s papers towards the party. 

It was this aspect where the documentary faced its first weakness: it’s overly deterministic. By stating that the Sun destroyed Labour leaders like Neil Kinnock, the document failed to account for other reasons. The media were of deep importance, but other factors more prominently shaped the past failure of Labour leaders. This was also the case regarding the UK leaving the EU and Donald Trump winning the 2016 US election. While Rupert Murdoch’s companies had an impact, to suggest they determined the result is to deny individuals researching how to vote. 

The level of access was impressive. Even though the Murdochs didn’t take part, interviews with key individuals who worked with them were sprinkled throughout. A good documentary series cannot rely on archive footage alone. It has to elicit something new. Individuals like Piers Morgan, Andrew Neil and Alistair Campbell were crucial for understanding the rise of the Murdochs and how their empire gained clout. Nigel Farage explained how Murdoch had given UKIP some sympathy and support. This was complimented by investigative journalist Sarah Ellison, who has crucial knowledge of the Murdochs alongside Les Hinton, who worked for News Corporation for over five decades. These different social perspectives on the Murdochs were crucial for understanding how exactly they operated.

The documentary revealed how the Murdochs aren’t one entity. Like all great dynasties, there are complicated power struggles about who takes over. The debate is as much about internal control as it is about presenting themselves externally. We learn about the conflict over who succeeds Rupert Murdoch: Elizabeth, Lachlan or James Murdoch. Given the News of the World’s closure happened on James’ watch, he wasn’t going to inherit that role. With this struggle came an intolerance for outsiders like Rupert Murdoch’s third wife Wendi Deng. It was saddening how dependent the children were on their father for success in their own lives. Independence was non-existent. 

At times the documentary focused too much on UK affairs at the expense of Murdoch’s Australian and US influence. Of course, the documentary was aimed at a UK audience, but I would have been intrigued to learn more about his different success across the world. While points were raised over his partisan TV channels, something Ofcom prevents in the UK, these could have been developed further. Similarly, Murdoch selling off most of his empire to Disney was covered too briefly with the justification unexplained. 

The best episode in my mind was the second, covering the brief fall of the Murdochs after the phone hacking allegations at the News of the World. It took Nick Davies and the Guardian years to uncover the news that allowed the revelations to be published. An alliance of Hugh Grant, Tom Watson and many others came together in condemnation of hacking that took place. It was only when murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked that international condemnation took place. Advertisements were pulled. The newspaper’s sustainability became impossible. Hundreds of News of the World journalists were thrown under the bus to ensure the Murdoch Dynasty could triumph.

Three hours sounds like a long time, but documentaries can only cover so much. The interviews were gripping for understanding of how one man – whatever your political perspective – gained so much international power. In some ways, it is admirable. A free press is essential for a free society. Government needs to be challenged by the press and readers. The problem is when that freedom leads to illegality. In the case of the News of the World, that led to its closure. In other cases, news stories can be selectively presented, meaning a well rounded picture isn’t provided.  That makes the case for press freedom and media pluralism even stronger. If the documentary revealed anything, it is that only with a wide number of voices influencing the news agenda can investigative and outstanding journalism be possible. 

Noah Keate provides a critique of the BBC’s new documentary that explores the rise of the Murdoch dynasty.